Phil Upchurch appears courtesy of CTI Records. David "Fathead" Newman appears courtesy of Warner Bros. Records. Woody Shaw appears courtesy of Muse Records. Gavin Christopher appears courtesy of Island Records.
Free in America is Ben Sidran's fifth album overall and his debut for Arista Records, and showcases him moving to an even more eclectic margin where the lines between jazz - contemporary and classic - blue-eyed soul, and sophisticated pop begin to blur into one another. He had long established himself as an eclectic songwriter and interpreter, but here, cramming so many different types of songs onto a single album was, depending on your point of view, either the work of a visionary, or an egotistical exercise in excess for its own sake. Time bears the truth: it was the former. All of it comes together in a jarring but seamless whole that juxtapose Louis Prima's "Sunday Kind of Love," Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," Reggie Hall and Joe Jones' R&B classic "You Talk Too Much," J.J. Cale's "After Midnight," and some of Sidran's most memorable originals. As usual, Sidran hired brilliant studio players to realize this difficult undertaking: the Brecker Brothers, Phil Upchurch, Sonny Seals, Woody Shaw, James Cooke, Bill Meeker, David "Fathead" Newman, Richard Tee, Gary Zappa, and Henry Gibson all make appearances, as do backing vocalists Kitty and Vivian Haywood, Mary Ann Stewart, Gavin Christopher, and Jerry Alexander, and Les Hooper did the string arrangements. Highlights include the Hall-Jones number. That song is commonly associated with Clarence Carter and earlier Frankie Ford, but Sidran's version was adapted form an obscure Latin boogaloo single by Javier Batiz in the mid-'60s. As if to underscore that, Sidran follows it with one of his greatest instrumentals, the bubbling cooker "The Cuban Connection," that marries Afro-Cuban jazz to Horace Silver, rock, and post-bop. The version of "After Midnight" is darker, steamier, funkier, and far more nocturnal than Eric Clapton's. The backing vocals add a raw sensuality to the track that is absent from all other versions. "New York State of Mind," is as convincing - and less nostalgic - than its composers, and includes a killer trumpet solo by Woody Shaw. Finally Sidran's bookend cuts, "Feel Your Groove," (a redo of the title track from his first album), and the title cut from this set, offer his wildly original lyric conceptions as the ultimate urban hipster romantic who looks at everything with a cool, detached comedic eye, even though his heart is on fire with a lust for the totality of experience. The disco horn section in the track extrapolates a familiar Elton John chorus and turns it into something more sophisticated, closer to the street, and more desirable. Time has been kind to most of Sidran's catalog: Free in America is one of its shining entries.
All Music Guide